'He hadn't eaten lunch for a year' - The sacrifices of Kumar Kartikeya Singh

The 24-year old left-arm spinner from Uttar Pradesh has had to cross thousands of hurdles to fulfill his dream of playing cricket

Nikhil Sharma
Left-arm everything.
That was quite an apt description by commentators when Kumar Kartikeya Singh made his IPL debut in Mumbai Indians' last match. You saw him bowl left-arm wristspin, wrong'uns, fingerspin and even the carrom ball. You probably don't know that till about six months ago he was just a left-arm orthodox spinner. His coach Sanjay Bharadwaj told ESPNcricinfo that in order to be successful in T20 cricket, Kartikeya taught himself wristspin - the most difficult art in cricket - and obsessively practised to master it.
It was this obsession nine years ago that brought a 15-year-old Kartikeya from Kanpur to Bharadwaj's academy in Delhi. He had promised his family that he won't let his cricket add to the financial burden of his father, a constable in Pradeshik Armed Constabulary (PAC). Kartikeya knew nobody in Delhi except his friend Radheshyam, who used to play league cricket. Radheshyam took him to many academies, but everyone demanded a hefty fee.
When they went to Bharadwaj and told him Kartikeya was in no condition to pay for the coaching, he agreed to give him a trial. All it took was one ball in the nets for Bharadwaj to agree to coach him pro bono. "His action was so smooth," Bharadwaj told ESPNcricinfo. "His use of fingers imparted action on the ball."
Kartikeya would walk miles to get to his cricket academy to save INR 10 for a pack of biscuits.
Now that coaching was taken care of, Kartikeya had to work for his food and lodging. He started as a labourer in a factory in Masuri, a village next to Ghaziabad, about 80km from the academy. He found shared accommodation near the factory. He would work in the factory all night, and then make it to the academy in the morning. Often he would walk miles to save INR 10 for a pack of biscuits.
When Bharadwaj came to know of the amount he travelled, he asked Kartikeya why he didn't stay someplace closer. That's when Kartikeya told him of his job in the factory, the night shifts and the arduous travel. Bharadwaj offered to let him share the on-site accommodation he had for the academy's cook.
Bharadwaj clearly remembers the first day Kartikeya stayed at the academy. "When the cook gave him lunch, Kartikeya began to cry: he hadn't eaten lunch for a year."
Bharadwaj then got Kartikeya enrolled in a school. He played schools nationals, and took 45 wickets in DDCA league. He was the Player of the Tournament in three tournaments including the prestigious Om Nath Sood Tournament in Delhi. And yet when Kartikeya went for the DDCA trials, he didn't make it to the longlist of 200.
Bharadwaj had dealt with these issues previously. Known more famously as the childhood coach of Gautam Gambhir, Bharadwaj saw the same happen to Amit Mishra when he was young. So he got Mishra to move to Haryana when he was not getting selected in Delhi. This time he sent his latest protege to Madhya Pradesh.
"Looking at his ability and dedication, I sent him to my friend and secretary of Shahdol Cricket Association Ajay Dwivedi," Bharadwaj said. "He played division cricket there and took 50-plus wickets in his first two years."
In the state trial matches, Kartikeya took five-fors in every match. Soon he went on to play Ranji Trophy cricket, having represented MP at Under-23 level earlier in the same month. When he debuted in 2018, Kartikeya made Bharadwaj speak to his father on the phone, the only time the coach has interacted with the family of his favourite ward.
Since then Kartikeya's new home was Bharadwaj's new academy in Bhopal, which had boarding facilities too. That's where, while playing his active cricket, Kartikeya quietly taught himself wristspin. He bowled it with such control on his IPL debut that the former great Daniel Vettori was impressed that he didn't bowl any loose balls. We might be surprised that till as recently as six months ago he was just a fingerspinner, but Bharadwaj is not surprised at all.
"Whenever he is free, he starts bowling in the nets," Bharadwaj said. "Many a time he comes back from matches in Indore late in the night and gets the lights on and spends the next two-three hours in the nets. His obsession has only grown in the last nine years."
In his first over in the IPL, Kartikeya took the wicket of Sanju Samson, and will go on to add other big names to it. Even if he hadn't achieved instant success, Kartikeya would not have been perturbed: in coming this far, he has crossed much bigger hurdles.
This story was originally published in the ESPNcricinfo Hindi edition. Enjoy more of our dedicated Hindi coverage here

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